|Cox's Scapa Flow Fleet|
An American Perspective
Articles from Camaraderie, the magazine of US Branch of the Association.
An article from the November 2000 issue.
In accordance with the terms of the Armistice, 74 German warships had been interned at the huge natural bay at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. These consisted of 11 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 8 scout destroyers, and 50 regular destroyers. The plan was to hold them there until June 21, 1919, at which time Germany would formally surrender British warships patrolled the ships which were manned by skeleton German crews under the command of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter; no British officers or crew-men were permitted aboard the anchored fleet.
On the evening of June 20, 1919, Vice Admiral Sir Sidney Fremantle, the British watchdog commander, was informed that the Armistice had been extended two days, until noon of the 23rd, at the request of the Germans. Fremantle thought this a good opportunity to get in some torpedo practice so his entire fleet (except three destroyers that were under repair and unable to get steam up and a few small armed trawlers) sailed away on the morning of the 21st.
A prearranged signal went up from Von Reuter's flagship at noon on the 21st and pennants were immediately hoisted on all the German ships. Red communist flags appeared at mastheads Whistles blew Bells rang. And several thousand seamen began to cheer as loud as they could In the meantime, officers and petty officers were below decks opening sea-cocks and smashing intake pipes from the saltwater strainers in the hulls. On the destroyers, which were moored two or three to a buoy, mooring cables were wired down to bollards and shackle pin ends on anchor chains were hammered over so that they could not be unscrewed.
The small British guard contingent on shore gasped in horror as they watched the German fleet drunkenly reeling about, careening, bumping, smashing, and sinking by the head, by the stern, on their sides, or completely turning turtle. With lifejackets on, German crewmen jumped overboard or used lifeboats to get to the nearest shore. The panicked British seamen tried to drive the Germans back aboard with gunfire to force them to close the valves; eight of them were killed and five wounded but the ships continued to sink beneath the waves The British were able to drag one battleship, three cruisers, and a few destroyers into shallow water; 50 of the German ships sunk in water 66 to 180 feet deep. These ranged from 750-ton torpedo boats to the 28,000-ton Hindenburg It is difficult to describe how furious Fremantle was with Von Reuter when he steamed into Scapa Flow that evening. The German fleet, for all practical purposes, had been scuttled, and that was that.
At this same time, there was an enormous shortage of metal in England. It was needed for railroads, ships. industrial and agricultural machinery, autos, girders, typewriters, and even razors. Shells, guns, and tanks were broken up and melted down. In 1921, Ernest Cox, a scrap-metal dealer, went even further by buying old Admiralty battleships and breaking them up at his Queensborough scrap metal yards on the Isle of Sheppey. Then, in 1924, he bought a German dry-dock from the British government for 20,000 pounds. He really had no use for the monstrous u-shaped structure but wanted the 400-foot-long steel pressure cylinder (once used for testing German U-boats) for scrap.
On a trip to Denmark, another scrap dealer suggested, half jokingly, that he use the dry-dock to raise the Scapa Flow warships. "I don't know if you can lift battleships but I do know that there are 30 or 40 destroyers there, none of them over 1,000 tons, and you can lift 3,000 tons with the dry-dock.", said the Dane. Cox thought indeed, why couldn't he lift the battleships? The Hindenburg alone had 28,000 tons of scrap metal just waiting to be salvaged. Of course, nothing like this had been done before in marine salvage. An obsession was born.
Cox spent only one day in a technical library and then went to the Admiralty to make an offer to buy a few of the destroyers. The official Navy report on the matter indicated that there was "no question" (impossible) of raising the ships. They did not present a hazard to navigation so they should just stay on the bottom and rust away. Cox, a working engineer, did not have any idea how he was going to raise the ships. The Navy sold him 26 destroyers and two battleships for 24,000 British pounds. Ernest Cox had bought a navy.
The day alter he bought the ships he began hiring. Two of the best were Thomas McKenzie and Ernest McKeown, who became known as the "two Macs", and were his chief salvage officers. There was no salvage equipment. There were no working shops, no sheds, no living accommodations on the Island of Hoy where he planned to centre his operations. But that did not stop him He had the 200-foot-long u-shaped dry-dock cut in two athwartship; the two parts were now shaped. He had them towed 700 miles in open sea to the Orkneys.
After many debates with the Macs, the lifting of the first destroyer, V.70, began at low tide in March 1924 The V-70 was sitting upright in 60 feet of water and the divers were able to place a heavy chain under the screw bosses and the rising tide lifted the stern Divers then ran a total of 12 messengers under the keel to the two dry-dock sections and pulled through heavy nine-inch cables. Twenty-four two-man crews then manned the winch handles in unison; the ship began to rise. Then, like an artillery shell exploding, a chain broke loose and smashed the deck, then another and another until men were diving into the water to escape the broken links, cables, huge shackles, and blocks as they went flying in all directions. The V-70 dropped like a rock Incredibly, no one was hurt.
After much experimenting with cable sizes and marine salvage techniques that utilised the lifting power of successive tides, the V-70 came up for good on March 1st Cox had found his method for retrieving small destroyers. The S-53 came up on August 12th, the S-55 on August 29 'the G-91 on September 12th, the G-38 on September 27th, and the S-52 on October 13th, just before operations closed in order to build a shore plant for working during the winter months. It is interesting that Cox never did break-up the S-70, rather he sealed the ship and fitted her out for a workshop for his carpenter and called her Salvage Unit Number 3. All in all, over the next 21 months, Cox and his men raised 25 German destroyers that the British Navy experts had pronounced unsalvageable All but S-70 were towed south to his salvage yard to be broken up for high-priced scrap metal. Cox was captivated by the marine salvage business.
By 1925, raising the destroyers became so routine that a single ship could be brought to the surface in just four days. At one point, six were raised in two weeks The mooring cables, which were supposed to cause so much trouble on the heaps of destroyers, were simply blown apart with gelignite; the salvage team became expert in the use of underwater explosives. They learned to roll over destroyers under water with relative ease, all the time adding new knowledge to marine salvage technology. By the summer of 1925, Cox had sold 10 destroyers to the Alloa shipbreakers for 23,000 pounds, returning half of his original investment He immediately spent the money to buy a colossal sinkable German floating dry-dock. He now went alter the heavier 1,300-ton scout destroyer